04 February 2021

How to write about Russia, part two

It's been just over nine years since the first mass demonstrations of the Putin era took place, in the wake of the December 2011 elections to the Duma (lower house of the legislature). Tens of thousands participated in a call for honest elections. Several demonstrations of similar scale followed, until someone at the top decided enough was enough.

Those demonstrations of 2011 and 2012 were either explicitly permitted or tolerated, and featured banners and platforms with speakers -- among whom Aleksei Navalny was prominent, but by no means the only star of the show. The contrast with these last weeks' events couldn't be more glaring. Navalny himself was nowhere to be seen -- but his voluntary return to Russia from the safety of Germany, and the way he was greeted by the authorities, were clearly the triggers for all these events: 

  • the gathering at Vnukovo Airport to greet Navalny's return from Germany 
  • the demonstrations of January 23 and 31 in over 100 cities and towns, and the 10,000 or more arrests during those events
  • the disturbances and mass arrests on February 2, the day Navalny appeared in court to hear that his suspended sentence from December 2014 was to become two years and eight months of actual prison.

Brothers Yuri (left) and Aleksei Navalny, December 2014
The tolerance that the government displayed back in 2011 (and up to the notorious Bolotnoe delo in May 2012) was nowhere to be seen now -- particularly four days ago, on January 31, when, as one Russian commentator put it, "The order went out: don't spare the nightsticks!"

During the February 2 disturbances, while I was watching the streaming coverage from several Internet channels, my Facebook Messenger chimed. It was an old friend of mine from Elektrostal, who wanted to chat and who (to my surprise) sent me a link that turned out to be one of those streaming channels with reporters on the streets, capturing the events with their cameras and microphones.

During our years in Elektrostal, during all our visits and meals together, my friend and I practically never talked about politics. But as we watched the stream together on Tuesday, exchanging observations as we did so, his despair and disillusionment was clear.

Cities with significant numbers of arrests on January 31
What was equally clear: Navalny himself may have been the catalyst for this mass discontent, but his own fate was not the main focus. Navalny's own supporters, of course, want him free, and many others inside and outside Russia admire his courage, even if they don't see him as Russia's future. However, my friend hardly named Navalny at all -- in fact, just once.  

"You know, mostly people were on the streets not because of Navalny, but because we are tired so much of that 'life' we have had lately... I even cannot name it 'life' coz it's not a life in the normal meaning of this word. We are living in a huge prison that called Russia. We are living under state terror. If you look back on Russian history -- the tsarist time, the Soviet time and modern Russia time -- ordinary Russian people never lived well. Unfortunately we have no culture and traditions of following the law, human rights, democracy, respecting other people's opinion, charity. and so on, that make a human being human. We have no traditions to respect other people's labor and pay them adequately.... " After we watched another series of vicious arrests, he continued: "A human life is nothing in Russia (all times, not only now) -- the proof of my words you can see now watching this channel."

My purpose in reporting my friend's words is not to assert that his cry of despair at this moment in history is, as a sample of one, an accurate and adequate overview of all that Russia offers its people and the rest of the world. For all the years I've been writing this blog, I have striven for balance, opposed Russophobia, and indulged in my share of compensatory "whataboutism" with respect to my own country's failures and blind spots. I have pointed out when I thought Vladimir Putin was operating from weakness rather than the ruthless strength Westerners sometimes credit him with. I have harshly judged commentary about Russia that struck me as cold, professional one-upmanship rather than being grounded in love and respect for the people of Russia.

It's an order, Mama! / My dear son, why?!!
Above all, I have sought to document that Russians don't need to be told by the West what is wrong with their country. There are Russians who already know! They employ anger and humor (sometimes simultaneously) and great passion, in the service of self-diagnosis. I've shared examples of this, despite my misgivings that Russians might resent having these conflicts exposed (Pushkin said "I despise my country from head to toe, but it really gets on my nerves when a foreigner shares these views"), because it testifies to an important capacity for self-correction.

But ... if I claim to base my descriptions of Russia on a genuine regard for the country and people, who have been at or near the center of my attention for my whole adult life, then I cannot pretend not to notice this moment of disillusionment. I can't un-hear what one young woman said on camera, on the street near the courthouse on Tuesday: "Look at what kind of a country we're in. But I just want to love my country." ("Хочется любить свою страну.") It's not everything to know about today's Russia, but it is something. There is nothing to be gained from withholding human solidarity from a people who seem to be sliding, however incrementally, into a new era of repression, with no pretense, no apologies, no mercy, from the authorities. After all, we Americans have just had a narrow (and by no means permanently guaranteed) escape from our own version of the same.

What Russophobia is NOT: It is not Russophobic to study the centuries-old patterns of oppression imposed on ordinary Russians by successive waves of corrupt and exploitive ruling classes. Furthermore, it is not Russophobic to describe how Russia's exploiters 

  • try to shape the international order to make themselves safer, or to make cynical comparisons that "our corruption is no worse than over there"; 
  • take advantage of other countries' banks and real estate markets to safeguard their profits;
  • speak eloquently about the superiority of Russia while educating their children in the "rotting" West; 
  • claim to be the last refuge of Christianity while practicing systematic cruelty. 

It would be an example of Russophobia to treat Russians as categorically deficient in the capacities needed for self-government. It is not Russophobic to examine the specific tricks used by politicians (in any country, for that matter) to sabotage self-government, to make themselves indispensable, to undercut any rivals and then claim that no credible rivals exist, and to argue that the times are too challenging to risk being distracted by a change in leadership. (This last argument, proposed by Putin himself, is as blatant a play for permanent rule as I've heard in any country claiming to be a democracy.)

Russia's own prophets are exposing all of these realities, despite the risks, and we ought to support them.

Of course we also ought to hold our own countries to account -- examining our own national performance in light of the ideals we claim to hold, not comparing our best with another country's worst. Even so, one country's sins do not require us to avert our eyes from injustice elsewhere. We ought to care about the victims and survivors of oppression everywhere -- and work for justice together in worldwide solidarity, according to our own gifts, talents, and opportunities in a division of labor that avoids both hypocrisy and misdirection.

In my first post on "how to write about Russia," from December 2011, I sought to ground my own idealism in a context of sober reality:

In some ways, the present arrangement ("the government's job is to build fences--our job is to find the holes") reflects an ancient equilibrium. It's an equilibrium that might drive a Western idealist nuts (although I'd argue we have our equivalents!), and we might even argue that it reinforces a fatal self-enslavement that could keep civic reform movements in a permanently marginal status. But up to this point it seems to be working for the powerful and powerless alike.

It's not wrong for idealists, including outsiders, to imagine something different. But let's understand whose future is at stake and whether our fantasies are ultimately rooted in our own intellectual fascinations, in the calculations of empire, or in love.

A couple of weeks earlier, I was experiencing the exhilaration of the first large-scale demonstration, but I realized that, living in Russia, I sometimes felt as if I was in a "hall of mirrors," and couldn't always trust my own perceptions.

The mirrors we prefer to look in flatter ourselves and exaggerate the distortions in the other. The mirror I look into is sentimental about the Russian opposition because they look more like me, but is this a sound basis for choosing what to believe or ignore about Russia? For the foreseeable future, the wiggly mirror and the absolutely normal mirror will be right next to each other here, and sometimes I'll still have no idea which one I'm looking into. But last Saturday, with anarchists and liberals and communists and nationalists walking together with dignity, assembling with great civility for hours, and dispersing without incident, the "normal" mirror seems suddenly to have gotten a lot bigger.

In "Are you adequately ashamed?" I touched on the sensitive subject of the Soviet Union's history of industrial-scale cruelty, and how to try to understand contemporary Russians' attitudes to that history. The conflict between those who try to preserve the memory of those years, and those who either look for silver linings in those trials or forget them altogether, has sharpened.

Every country probably has its share of mindless pseudo-patriots, who display no capacity for reflection and regret. In the long run, no country is well served by ignorance, but politicians observably find it expedient to make appeals to this constituency -- yes, even in the USA, where our recent political season [2008] featured flattering references to the "real America" where doubters are scorned and where people know better than to share the wealth. Those who do have a calling to be more reflective and prophetic about national traumas will probably always face an uphill battle. There's nothing wrong with Americans who love Russia to support transparency and healing, but only if it doesn't strengthen the impression that all we want to do is ignorantly pour salt into old Russian wounds for the sake of American political agendas or simply to reinforce our own prejudices.

Finally, two posts that sample Russian humor: Russian humor as testimony; to Russia with love.

If you've stuck with me all the way to this last paragraph, thanks for indulging me in this review, as I try to honor the genuine despair that I heard in that chat with my friend two days ago. I still believe it is possible to regard Russia through eyes of love, not trapped into a binary choice between romanticism and cynicism. In any case, for me, indifference is apparently not an option.

Part one; part three.

Nanna Heitmann, A Moscow clown had no place to perform....

Navalny and the Kremlin's disinformation campaigns.

Lynn Stuart Parramore: Is alcohol having a #MeToo moment?

Michael Centore: The Christian poet and the "realm of the unsayable" ... in light of Thomas Merton's experience. (With thanks to Jonathan Montaldo for the link.)

Denis Mazhukov's boogie-woogie for the quarantine.


Dr. Civility said...

Thanks for this Johann, these are scary times and this is a balanced perspective.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you. You caught my intent.

Unknown said...

I suppose as a person who has never been to America (though I have ancestors who migrated there), I find its history equally horrific, slavery, the destruction of the way of life and peoples whose land it was. The amount America spends on arms I find deeply disturbing as well as its foreign policy aims, the adherence to gun ownership and the death penalty I find horrifying. From a spiritual perspective I can only feel love and friendship towards all peoples regardless of country. I suppose many of the Russian people I have known and know are just people who are living in the part of the world they know as home. I hope you don't mind my observations. I appreciate the frankness of your writing. Please accept my good wishes, you and Judy.